Thursday, March 26, 2009

the secret to asian cooking

I have a recipe that calls for "Chinese Five Spice." Not knowing what that was, since I am not Chinese, I went out and bought it at a Chinese supermarket--it appears to be a mixture of star anise, fennel, cloves, cinnamon, pepper. I like all of these things, but I have never combined them. I open the jar, and take a whiff.

For crying out loud, this is the "secret" to my mother's excellent barbequed pork and spare ribs?! For all these years, this was the magical recipe?! For all these years, I've been totally paralyzed with fear about trying to replicate my mom's recipes or even attempt Asian--much less Vietnamese--cooking, for fear of being too inauthentic. It does feel shameful that my pork wonton recipe comes from About.com, and all of my recipes that are not learned from my mother or The Only Vietnamese Friend I Have are from whitey recipe sites. But they were not speaking the untruth! The white people, they can interpret an Asian recipe too without the mystical folklorish wisdom of "you just know when" and the imprecision of "a pinch or two of that." Tablespoons and teaspoons are nice guidelines! And even if you use Cooks Illustrated to make Szechuan food (why would an American born and raised Vietnamese American girl know how to cook in that style intuitively anyway, and aren't we against essentialism!), this does not make you a bad person. Sometimes, Cooks Illustrated knows the family recipe that your mother uses.

This is not unlike finding out your Great Aunt Rose's legendary pound cake is made from a box mix, and all this time you could have been making and eating your own legendary cake.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

on difficult films

The older I get, the more I want to be diverted and entertained by gaudy spectacles and improbable wish-fulfilling plots. Maybe it's the product of also feeling too old for drama in my own life, which may be mirrored in my aesthetic choices. I went through a major "bummer" phase in college, when I only liked sad, difficult cinema, and even better if it was in a foreign language. I am less into being depressed for depression's sake. That said, there's always a special place in my latent angsty psyche for such films and literature, because "the good" will always win over "the crappy"--no matter how happy or silly or wish-fulfilling that chick flick is, I will not watch it. I will happily watch films like "Wendy and Lucy" though, and "Frozen River." For more on the cinema verite of such realistic, depressing, neo-depression era films, read A.O. Scott's article in the Times:

WHAT KIND OF MOVIES do we need now? It’s a question that seems to arise almost automatically in times of crisis. It was repeatedly posed in the swirl of post-9/11 anxiety and confusion, and the consensus answer, at least among studio executives and the entertainment journalists who transcribe their insights, was that, in the wake of such unimaginable horror, we needed fantasy, comedy, heroism. In practice, the response turned out to be a little more complicated — some angry political documentaries and earnest wartime melodramas made it into movie theaters during the Bush years, and a lot of commercial spectacles arrived somber in mood and heavy with subtext— but such exceptions did little to dent the conventional wisdom.

And as a new set of worries and fears has crystallized in recent months — lost jobs and homes, corroded values and vanished credit — the dominant cultural oracles have come to pretty much the same conclusions. Remember the ’30s, when we danced through the Depression with Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley and giggled amid the gloom with Lubitsch and the Marx Brothers? (Not many of us do, of course, which makes this kind of selective memory easier to promote.) Then as now, what we wanted most was to forget our troubles. In recession, as in war — and also, conveniently, in times of peace or prosperity — the movies we evidently need are the ones that offer us the possibility, however fanciful or temporary, of escape.

Maybe so. But what if, at least some of the time, we feel an urge to escape from escapism? For most of the past decade, magical thinking has been elevated from a diversion to an ideological principle. The benign faith that dreams will come true can be hard to distinguish from the more sinister seduction of believing in lies. To counter the tyranny of fantasy entrenched on Wall Street and in Washington as well as in Hollywood, it seems possible that engagement with the world as it is might reassert itself as an aesthetic strategy. Perhaps it would be worth considering that what we need from movies, in the face of a dismaying and confusing real world, is realism.

I don’t want to spoil any plots, but if you have read this far, it will hardly surprise you to learn that, in these movies, dreams generally do not come true. Antonio Ricci never did recover his bicycle.

“They all of them, in a way, can be connected to the myth of Sisyphus,” Rahmin Bahrani said to me, as our conversation ranged from his own films to those of his peers and precursors. “Because it’s like, that’s it: you will push the stone up to the top, and it will come back down again.” In contrast, Bahrani said, Hollywood wish-fulfillment tales — or the faux-independent dramas of adversity followed by third-act redemption — did not strike him as hopeful at all. “They just don’t make any sense,” he said. “They create massive confusion.” To which his own films (and films like “Ballast,” “Wendy and Lucy,” “Sugar” and “Treeless Mountain”) might serve, in their very different ways, as an antidote. Not because they offer grim counsels of despair or paint lurid tableaux of desperation but rather because they take what has always seemed seductively easy about moviemaking — the camera can show us the world — and make it look hard. Their characters undergo a painful process of disillusionment, and then keep going. The disappointment they encounter — the grit with which they face it, the grace with which it is conveyed — becomes, for the audience, a kind of exhilaration. What happens at the end of a dream? You wake up.


Cinema verite I get, understand the value of, and appreciate and will force myself to seek and watch. Stories of sadness and the multiplexity of the human condition are worth seeing, even if it disturbs the bubble of blithe unconcern. But there remains a class of "difficult" movies I cannot bring myself to watch though, even if it will be artistically speaking, "good for me": violent movies. I was trying to get through the first ten minutes of "A Clockwork Orange," and the second rape scene stopped me cold and I refused to see the rest. I couldn't get through "Deliverance" for the same reason. I just don't like violence, especially scenes of rape. This cuts out a whole bunch of movies that are artistically good and valuable, and rape is one of the ugliest human acts that should come to the foreground of discussion. But I can't bring myself to suffer through the bad parts of these movies, even if the ultimate lesson is worthwhile, such is my discomfort. Should I push myself more, in the name of difficult art? How much should we push ourselves and challenge our aesthetic limits in order to better understand the human condition?


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Friday, March 20, 2009

Yet another reason to boycott Jezebel.

My complaints against their faux feminism are many, but when one "feminist" sells out another victim of sexual assault for page views, it's the end of the line for me. Amber has the details.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Discrimination I don't get.

Well, I don't get a lot of discrimination, even as I understand the cognitive shortcuts of availability heuristics that lead to discrimination, whether invidious or unconscious. But that's a conversation for another day.

I bring this up because of this rather affecting post by Helen about her experiences at Le Bernadin, a very nice restaurant in NYC. Helen is a food blogger for the MenuPages, a swell gal, and a big fan of Eric Ripert (the executive chef/owner), which made the experience all the more disappointing:

I raced home after work and changed from my usual cubicle attire of jeans and ratty t-shirt into a total slickness cocktail dress, high heels, teeny tiny clutch purse. Fancy, dig? So I walk in, Mr. B's not there yet, and present myself to the Maitre d'. "Hi, I'm a few minutes early for a 7:30 reservation." He looks me up and down, sneers, dismisses. "Yes. Well. You may check your coat." A flick of the hand in the general direction of the coat check and he turns back to his reservation book.

On my coat-checkward pivot, an older gentleman comes in, and presents an identical introduction. "Hi, I'm a few minutes early for a 7:30 reservation." It's like a parallel universe: "Of course, sir. May I take your coat? Please make yourself comfortable in the lounge. May I have the bartender make you a drink?


It didn't get better. When Mr. B arrived, we were led to a crappy table next to the kitchen door. Okay, overlookable, all restaurants have crappy tables and someone needs to sit in them. But then the captain comes over and hands us our menus, opened to the dinner menu, which he explains. Then he walks away.

So we call after him — actually, we explain, we were planning on ordering the tasting menu. Is that available? So yes, actually, it turns out it is, and he flips the page and shows it to us. "The tasting menus are $135 and $185 dollars," he takes care to note. Thanks, dude, the price is printed on the page. He starts to walk away again.

I have enough multi-course tasting menus at enough super-fancy restaurants (I know, pity me) to know that sometimes even the best service has an off-day, and I'm forgiving of it. But just as the maitre d' was welcoming and warm to the middle-aged man who walked in thirty seconds after I did, the service captain's back was always being hastily turned to us so that he could attend, friendly and with notable graciousness, to the table to our left. And in front of us. And diagonally to the right. It wasn't an off-day. We were, apparently, off-customers.

Look, I don't want to say that it was because we're young that we got such bad service, but oh my god, it was totally because we are young. I'm not really the type to march into a restaurant and declare "Hello, I am a former cookbook editor* who is now a food blogger, i.e. I know my shit, and my dining companion works in finance, i.e. we are not going to cheap out on you. Treat us accordingly." If I did that, I would be an asshole. Because there shouldn't be any "accordingly" treatment for a food pro and a rich dude.

Probably the Maitre d' has more accumulated experience about this, but I can't even understand the basis for his discrimination and/or cognitive laziness that he made such a snap judgment. Did he judge lovely Helen's shoes and bag to determine her ability to pay? (I am sure they were fab, much more so than my Naturalizer shoes.) In any case, why couldn't he assume that Helen and Mr. B were second year law firm associates or flush investment bankers ready to go to town with a tasting menu + wine? Ok, maybe now that there's a recession, there may be less of that, as everyone tightens their Prada belts and the financial services people are laid off left and right. But still, it seems to me illogical to assume that 20-somethings are unlikely to be able to afford a fine dining experience, and treating them badly ensures that they will not be repeat customers, even if they could afford to be. In fact, as age discrimination often skews the other direction in employment, I would expect older workers to be more affected by lay-offs (you have to pay them more for their experience), and given the reduction in defined contribution plans (no more pensions) and the abysmal savings rate and crashing housing market (many had their chief source of assets in the value of their house), it may well be likely that the 20-something has more income and earning potential than most middle aged Americans.

I'm not arguing for age discrimination against the middle-aged! I am merely saying that it seems wholly illogical and incomprehensible for nice restaurants to discriminate against 20-somethings! About as logical as discrimination in tipping. It would take a relatively cultured and knowledgeable diner to choose such an establishment, so why presume their inability to pay? Maybe it's my relaxed, go-with-the-flow geographical milieu, but TD and I have always had the nicest service 'round our parts. Even the super fancy "best restaurant in the world" was extremely gracious to us when they expressed their apologies that the waiting list was much longer than the date for which we wanted to dine. And you know what? One day we'll go to that restaurant. Nothing makes me more nervous than snooty people treating me rudely and judging me. I don't have as emotional a connection to a chef and his food as Helen does, so I feel doubly sorry for her for her bad experience.

In any case, Helen gets it exactly right--despite whatever presumptions, correct or incorrect, logical or illogical the Maitre d' may have had about her worthiness as a customer and her ability to pay, she deserved good service:

At a restaurant of the caliber and reputation of Le Bernardin there is one of two scenarios for a table: One, they're the kind of person for whom this isn't a break-the-bank experience. They're the "you know, I've really been craving that mackerel at Le B, let's go next week" table. They should get excellent service, because they're the backbone of the restuarant's business.

Two, they're not that type. They're tourists splurging on a special dinner. They're a young couple who've saved up for a couple months to spare no expense on a birthday celebration. Heck, they're a young couple who haven't saved up for a couple months, and will frugally and perhaps embarrassedly order the precisely cheapest things on the menu, because it is a special occasion and they have decided that, credit card debt be damned, they would like to spend that occassion at Le Bernardin. They should get excellent service, because they fucking deserve it.



Yet another thing I will never get: deplorable service from an industry that is based on the giving of service, such that they are called "the service industry." Dude, do your job. I also hate any and all professors who are demeaning to students on the basis of class, gender, or race, as if to impart the divine liquor of knowledge is beneath them, and only the most worthy may be supplicants. This all fills me with enormous class resentment and indignant rage.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

I don't get the point of this happy blog

The Happiness Project. Wha?


The author, Gretchen Rubin, is very smart and a very well trained...lawyer. (No, not going to insert joke here.) But really, what are her qualifications to tell you how to be happy? Why does she have a mirrored Slate blog?

I mean, I've read some interesting stuff that came out of the most recent "Happiness and Its Causes" conference in Australia (most of it is the usual stuff from psychologists on your affect and disposition; what affects (heh) your affect and disposition, biochemical realities/social constructs of happiness; how happiness can be measured, etc.). There's currently a call for papers for a conference on "The Pursuit of Happiness," about 19th century constructs of happiness. There's plenty of research out there showing that happiness is largely a biochemical reaction and a social construct. This stuff I get. This stuff is science and history. This stuff is interesting.

Rubin's stuff, however, is remarkably poorly written, shallow, and trivial (the parts that are not quoting from others) and I really distrust her methodology of "test-driving" the principles. It sounds like a gussied up version of "The Secret" or that woman who spent a year following Oprah's advice. Don't believe me? Here's Rubin's "happiness manifesto":

• To be happy, you need to consider feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, and an atmosphere of growth.
• One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.
• The days are long, but the years are short.
• You’re not happy unless you think you’re happy.
• Your body matters.
• Happiness is other people.
• Think about yourself so you can forget yourself.
• “It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.” -- G. K. Chesterton
• What’s fun for other people may not be fun for you, and vice versa.
• Best is good, better is best.
• Outer order contributes to inner calm.
• Happiness comes not from having more, not from having less, but from wanting what you have.
• You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.
• You manage what you measure.
• “There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy.” -- Robert Louis Stevenson

And here are her "twelve commandments":


And her "secrets of adulthood":

  • By doing a little bit each day, you can get a lot accomplished.
  • People don’t notice your mistakes and flaws as much as you think.
  • It's nice to have plenty of money.
  • Most decisions don't require extensive research.
  • Try not to let yourself get too hungry.
  • Even if you think they are fake holidays, it's nice to celebrate Mother's Day and Father's Day.
  • If you can't find something, clean up.
  • The days are long, but the years are short.
  • Someplace, keep an empty shelf.
  • Turning the computer on and off a few times often fixes a glitch.
  • It's okay to ask for help.
  • You can choose what you do; you can't choose what you LIKE to do.
  • Happiness doesn't always make you feel happy.
  • What you do EVERY DAY matters more than what you do ONCE IN A WHILE.
  • You don't have to be good at everything.
  • Soap and water removes most stains.
  • It's important to be nice to EVERYONE.
  • You know as much as most people.
  • Over-the-counter medicines are very effective.
  • Eat better, eat less, exercise more.
  • What's fun for other people may not be fun for you--and vice versa.
  • People actually prefer that you buy wedding gifts off their registry.
  • Houseplants and photo albums are a lot of trouble.
  • If you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough.
  • No deposit, no return.

This is stuff you can get in any self-help book or the less judgmental pages of a women's magazine! "It's nice to have plenty of money"?! Truer words never spoken, also none more obvious, also none more borne of privilege. This is totally feel goody, New Agey stuff! I don't even know what she is prescribing with"your body matters"! I know that this is purely self-promotion and book hawking on the part of the author. So why is Slate giving her a venue? The Green Lantern, for however annoyingly moralistic it is, is at least useful if I cared how much energy my blog's bandwidth takes.

No one can tell you how to be happy, or how to get happy. I say this to you as a lapsed Buddhist who grew up learning The Four Noble Truths of Suffering (so if you learn them and act them you suffer less, which is supposed to get you to happier). I have even confessed to you my desire to cut negativity from my life (so much for that, given this critical post). But there's just some sort of huge disconnect between this general "improve your happiness quotient" advice and real life problems that would take more than "activate your inner self" kind of posturing.

If you have specific problems, you can get some advice on those, I think, if the advice/solutions are feasible and you have the wherewithal and means to solve them. You know, like if you are unhappy with your job, your partner, your family dynamic, you can talk to a psychologist and learn behavioral therapy techniques for coping with problems that you can't solve and for acting to improve situations you can change, or at least change your response to them. Obviously, unhappiness stemming from poverty/abuse/trauma/structural conditions are harder to "solve," and all the therapy in the world (if you can afford it) won't make the bills/cancer go away. If you have biochemical bases for not being happy, you can get medication for that if you can afford the health insurance and the pills. But I am rather annoyed at this branch of self-helpism that is more like "suggestions for the mild to moderate life enhancement and amelioration of the delicate concerns of the bourgeoisie." It is true that getting organized makes you feel better. Oh, if only my only concern were the cluttered state of my desk and home, rather than huge debt, fears of being unemployable, being totally behind in work, and how the current economic recession is affecting my most loved ones.

The nail in the coffin: Rubin finds Gwyneth Paltrow insightful.


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Friday, March 13, 2009

dollhouse, reviewed

This post is dedicated to Jason W., who wrote me a very excellent review of the show. If not for the fact that I watch it on Sundays through Hulu, he'd be an excellent IM buddy to watch the show live with. I owe him an email, and my own review. But I though I'd share the TV addiction.

Dollhouse was created by Joss Whedon. Need I say more? YES. Whedon is the reason I started watching the show. He is the only reason I am continuing to watch it. I am not saying that I am a huge TV snob. My taste for high brow, highly scripted TV shows notwithstanding (The Wire, Mad Men), I really love a good drama/comedy, and I have been known to watch those procedural shows with abandon (sign me up for a Law and Order: SVU marathon). I don't even make any pretensions about how I refuse to watch TV. I just refuse to buy another digital-ready TV, and I am lazy about getting an antenna for my 20 inch TV. But I watch a lot of TV on the internet and on DVD. So I know of what I speak.

Dollhouse is good TV. Entertaining, well-designed set, heart-pumping action-filled plots and lots of hot women doing hot things. It is not the best show though. Do not expect it to be nominated for an Emmy. I am waiting for the Whedon to kick in. According to the Onion's AV Club, the show will hit its stride in the sixth episode, as the first five episodes are designed to be stand-alone episodes to hook new viewers. Ok, I can wait for the incredibly complex, multilayered, and drawn out plots that all Whedon fans have grown to love. What I am also waiting for, though, is better dialogue, the completely lacking Whedonesque humor, better plots even if stand alone (some are really lame, like the one with the backup singer), and better acting. Because I am a person who greatly enjoys bad and cheesy movies (Center Stage, Pure Country starring George Strait), it is all the more disappointing when my minimum threshhold for acting is not met. Dang, Eliza Dushku. What is up with you. Why you gotta be like the same girl from Chico in the '90s, actin' like you all tough and shit (see, e.g. Bring it On, Buffy). What up with the lack of inflection, yo? I'm half expecting her to say "aiiight" or something in some episode.

Onto the substantive critique: the main premise of the show is that there's a big company that gets young women and men (so far, the show's focus is on the women) to sign up for a personality wipe so that they can become "actives" and be deployed by the agency as ANYTHING their clients want. Yes, the agency is one big pimp service. Many of the assignments are romantic (read: prostitute), and I swear in a brief camera swing I saw a girl dressed up like a geisha. Ewwwww. There are other assignments, some life-saving. Actives can be deployed as body guards, midwives, super criminals, etc. Dushku's character is named "Echo." It took me till the second episode to figure out that this corresponds to the military alphabet, and I only know that from decades watching Star Trek. Anyway, Echo is "special." She's better able to adapt than other actives. After every "engagement," the actives are wiped clean, and they in the "tabula rasa" state are like children, or severely mentally disabled adults. They are programmed to know how to eat, shower, and enjoy exercise (they gotta keep fit in order to save lives/have sex). But they aren't programmed with any identity other than recognition of their name, their handlers, and innate docility. Apparently, programming them with more leads to bloodshed, which is what happened with an active-gone-psycho named Alpha, who is obsesed with Echo. That is the plot to watch, and that's why I'm going to keep watching. This is the multi-episode Whedonoesque plot I'm talking about, and I'm hoping Alpha is as evil as Buffy's Caleb.

Why Echo is so special I'll never know. I wanted Carla Gugino for this role. Someone with emotional range. True, Echo doesn't need much--her blank state is pretty much like any vacant, vapid starlet, and in her other incarnations she is appropriately sexy and fun and kick-assy. So what kind of acting am I waiting for? I dunno. The other actors around Echo are much better. I love, love Harry Lennix as Echo's handler Boyd, and he has the sufficient gravitas and pathos to convey his moral ambiguity about the project. Also wonderful is Amy Acker, a doctor who was cut up by Alpha and expresses a more personally-rooted ambivalence about the project. Whereas Boyd's is borne of an inner sense of morality, the Doctor's stems from a betrayal of trust.

Two other favorite characters are Topher, an evil genius who does all the programming, and Ms Dewitt (Olivia Williams), who is a cold administrator of the agency and super cool. Jason W. hits the nail on the head by identifying Topher as similar to the Evil Trio from Buffy--because of his moral flexibility, he can't see the evil. He describes the organization as great humanitarians fulfilling people's dreams. He doesn't see what's so problematic about wiping people's personalities, which is tantamount to murder if we identify life as encompassing more than the corporeal body. Blah blah soul blah blah. Actually, I am uncomfortable with the murder metaphor, since I am pro-death. I believe in assisted suicide, for example. Yet this is not the same, and so I will refrain from making such a cautious argument for limiting the definition of life. Ok, this is like murder. What is particularly troublesome for me is the complete stripping of human agency. It's not so much that they're killing people by making them not exist and reinventing them. It's more that with every engagement, they're being forced again and again to do something that wouldn't be in their will to do.

It's the repeat violation of free will that I can't stand. Killing someone is just a one-time thing. In the show, Echo is shown as having "no choice" but to flee her life and start over with the agency, but Jason W. is sure (and I agree) that that lack of choice will be problematized. The rather unsettling premise of the show, that a corporation owns people to use as they see fit (often as sex slaves) is really off-putting, but no one in the agency is portrayed as sympathetic. In a way, at least it's honest. For all the debate about sex work as being work that some women choose, we must question whether such work is really a legitimate choice. Real-life prostitutes have more agency than any of the actives, to be sure. They "chose" to go into this line of work, sometimes they can choose their johns, etc. But is this all really a choice? Without completely denying all sex workers agency, aren't there socioeconomic and structural factors that led to this constrained "choice" between sex work and other work? Given a choice between sex work and other work, would prostitutes choose sex work? Or is all of sex work hard to distinguish from other forms of sex-trafficking, in which the coercive forces are more apparent? If anything, this show does highlight the problematic construction of choice in the modern age. We do make our own choices, for the most part. But our ability to choose and the choices we may choose from are constrained by forces beyond our control, and for some the constraints may be greater than for others. And clearly, in a world where nothing is your choice and you have a complete lack of agency, for however sexy and bad-ass you are, you are the most pitiful creature. So despite my annoyance at Dushku, I am rooting for Echo. Anything to keep Harry Lennix and Amy Acker employed! The guy who plays this FBI guy obsessed with exposing the Dollhouse is ok, too. I need to watch Battlestar Galactica. So far, Ballard seems one note.

Recommended if you like Brave New World + Eternal Sunshine + The Pretender + Buffy + hot chicks.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

like a moth to a flame burned by the fire

So one of my accidental New Year's resolutions (because the great reorganization project is still buried under piles of books and papers) was to cut out excessive negativity and anger from my life. This is not a Buddhist thing. I am a terrible meat-eating and greedy person. Just more a blood pressure thing. I just get too upset over stuff. And I tend to ruminate on it. And I tend to talk about it, and TD is sick of hearing about it too. Why get upset when I can avoid being upset? It's not even upset for a good reason, like say political mobilization. Mostly it's just being appalled at what jerks and idiots people can be. There's some social function in being appalled, because that means we feel some sort of norm violation or we reinforce some sense of ethics, like when I am appalled that people with herpes do not inform their partners and instead just go at it. But it's not like I can do anything about it. And continuing to read more of the same doesn't do much to benefit that social function, but rather just makes me really mad and upset about something and then I become negative too. And I am one of the smiliest, loveliest people you will ever meet! This is why I don't read that Roissy guy. Just don't feed the hate, and don't feed the attention these hateful bloggers thrive on.

So I Leechblocked a bunch of sites: blogs of people I can't stand to read (whether because of disagreement with everything they say, their narcissistic negativity, or both) and Jezebel and Jezebel bloggers. Unfortunately, other sites I read (like XX Factor) link to Jezebel. Or the bloggers I stopped reading seem to get into flame wars with the bloggers I do like to read. A flame war ensues, and I find myself in the curious in-between position, but clearly I am not one to be indecisive, and so I do choose sides, but because I don't want to get in a flame war, I don't say anything even though I'd like to. Sigh. Sometimes, there's just no getting away from it all. I suppose I could stop blogging or reading blogs. Sometimes, I think I should.

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yet another front in the mommy wars

Hanna Rosin has a great article called "The Case Against Breast Feeding" in this month's Atlantic. It's especially good read in conjunction with Jill Lepore's "If Breast is Best, Why are Women Bottling Their Milk?" article in the New Yorker.

The gist of both articles is not to posit La Leche or the American Pediatrics Society as a vast conspiracy to chain mothers to their babies, but that the statistics on the health benefits of breast-feeding are marginal (within statistical insignificance) at best, and so you're not feeding your baby this super vaccine and intelligence juice that will make them super smart and healthy super babies. And if you don't breastfeed, you need not worry that you are feeding your baby poison that will make them sickly and stupid. Formula babies can turn out quite healthy and smart, depending on how you raise them when you stop breast-feeding. And that there are real costs to breast-feeding as a working mother, in the form of lost hours of sleep (that your husband does not have to share the cost of) and lost productivity during the day as you take pump breaks, even if your employer accommodates you with a lactation room. As Rosin writes:

The debate about breast-feeding takes place without any reference to its actual context in women’s lives. Breast-feeding exclusively is not like taking a prenatal vitamin. It is a serious time commitment that pretty much guarantees that you will not work in any meaningful way. Let’s say a baby feeds seven times a day and then a couple more times at night. That’s nine times for about a half hour each, which adds up to more than half of a working day, every day, for at least six months. This is why, when people say that breast-feeding is “free,” I want to hit them with a two-by-four. It’s only free if a woman’s time is worth nothing.


I remain very ambivalent about all of this, since I am interested in caregiver discrimination and agree with Lepore that turning breast-feeding into a "women's rights issue" is yet another way we don't deal with the issue of adequate family leave polices. Yes, accommodating breast-feeding is important. But so is adequate leave. And what irks me the most is how the entire debate is posited as a responsiblity of only the mother, such that her failure to breastfeed is an example of her moral failure, and her selfishness. If the benefits of breast-feeding (apart from the bonding, which I am sure may be achieved in other ways) are marginal and cannot be disentangled from other confounders such as parental education and income level (which tends to produce smarter, healthier babies), then why demonize mothers who choose formula over breast? I haven't decided yet what I will do, but I would personally expel some moralizing "lactation expert" from my delivery room, and I will probably avoid all "mommy and me" groups. That there is even such a huge debate shows how this issue has been taken away from the individual parents to be some sort of banner for the many competing groups, who may agree on the policy recommendation, but for different reasons. And only few of these reasons may be your own, and quite possibly many of them don't consider the realities you will find yourself in as you reenter the workforce or struggle personally with issues of co-parenting.

They always end those public service public health ads with "talk to your doctor." Sure, I'd recommend that, as well as reading up on the literature yourself, especially if you can read statistics. But I'd also say to talk to yourself, and your partner. If this is all about the mother and her child (parents! their!), then why have the parents disappeared from the entire debate? "Find out what's best for you" is what they usually say, or used to.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Should Belle Watch "The Watchmen"?

Pros: I really like graphic novels and comics, and I like Alan Moore's work. This is the movie I've been looking forward to.

Cons: Bad reviews. Really bad reviews (Anthony Lane doesn't like anything, but when he accuses a movie of misogyny, then...). Directed by Zack Snyder, who did the fatuous (but since I hadn't read the comic novel, at the time I saw it entertaining) 300. Almost gratuitously violent, and I don't like gratuitous violence. Like, I really don't like it and I am incapable of maintaining disbelief and so visual depictions of violence, even if fake, really bug me. I like enough to make a point, but all the reviews predict that I will do that annoying thing I do and grip TD's arm and bury my head in his shoulder at the grisly parts (say the rape scene, or the cleaver scene).

If the movie is good enough, I will try to stomach the violence and see a comic book ruined.

What say you all? Did any of you see the movie yet? What did you think?

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Friday, March 06, 2009

greetings from someplace warmer than where you are

Unless you're in Florida or something. I have escaped my cold and rainy climate for sunnier pastures. I am writing from a guest bedroom in the Los Angeles area, and oh yes, haterz, I am blogging poolside. 65 degrees is not exactly sunburn weather, but it is dry and warm here, with a cooling breeze. I always thought Brain Candy got it wrong--it shouldn't feel like 72 degrees in your head at all time, it should be somewhere in the 65-67 range.

I have a love-hate relationship with Los Angeles. Most of the people I love and am not related to and therefore love with free will live here. But I also have some unpleasant memories of this place that are tied specifically to living here and hating the traffic and congestion, and the rather high maintenance fakey glame. If you wonder why Orange County seems so plastic and high-lighted and spray tanned, it's because it's imitating Los Angeles. Still, as I'm in a suburb just outside of Los Angeles, I am so far immune from the stiletto-and-designer jeans-wearing crowd, and I am comfortably wearing my Patagonia fleece jacket that's been branded with TD's company logo. No judgment can reach me in my lovely guest bedroom with the queen sized bed dressed in robin's egg blue with the vase of fresh flowers next to it. Dude, everyone should vacation for cheap this way. I am helping out with the cooking for my dear hosts, and really, I am eating awesomely.

Although, if I could afford to/had need to go out for dinner, Los Angeles is the place to go. Other than NYC, I can't think of a place that has better (and a greater variety, and a greater number) of ethnic food choices. I'm outside of Los Angeles, but if I were in LA proper, there'd be any number of neighborhoods to drive through on Pico Blvd. and get awesome meals. The food (and live theatre and music scene) is almost enough to make you want to put up with the necessity of driving, unbearable traffic, and lip-glossy fake glamour. Almost. I will take my own cold/rainy climate, good bourgie but so-so ethnic food, excellent public transportation and comfortable non-glamourous fleece-wearing compatriots any day. They may be sanctimonious in that crunchy granola sense, but they never implicitly demand that I wear heels and flashy designer duds.

That said, it's a nice place to visit. I never focus on the place so much as the people I'm visiting though, so I highly recommend that you visit my friend The Teacher and stay with her.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

random roundup

1. A book club about Marbury v. Madison!

2. Freakonomics does a Q&A with Lawrence Lessig.

3. Climate change civil disobedience.

4. Pay students for grades!

5. Macro-to-macro causation.


Sorry for the light blogging lately. I've been working on figuring out my own meso-level theories, which makes me haz a sad about how hard it is to come up with a coherent model. I'm also flying out myself on Wednesday night to visit friends for a long weekend, and likely there will be more blogging than there has been, just because what else do you do when your friends work all day (besides work yourself, heh). I have also recommitted to Leechblock, and am considering livign in complete ignorance from 10 am to 7 pm every day by adding NYT and Slate to Blockset 1. But then how would I do random roundup? What if the recession deepens and I did not read about it at the moment it happened? Oh wait. Okay, I'll try to start adding more things to Leechblock.

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